Learning From Newark
In April 2005, the former Mayor of Newark, Sharpe James, hosted a presentation of the Newark/Devils Arena. While somewhat smaller than that proposed for Brooklyn, Mr. James spoke enthusistically about the new arena. “Today is a great day for the City of Newark", he said, "…we are putting Newark on the world stage and it will be the world’s star performer”. The Newark arena had been intended to replace the Continental Airlines Arena as the home of the Nets, before the Nets were purchased by Bruce Ratner.
Needless to say, Mr. James is no longer mayor. But in an article in the Times last week, Andrew Jacobs noted that recently elected reform-minded Mayor Cory Booker has made a deal with the Devils for the new arena, which appears to be nearing the midpoint of construction. What Booker had called a “boondoggle and a “betrayal of public trust” for committing the city to paying $210 million of the arena’s cost, is now inevitable; there was no choice but to make the best of it. Where did Newark go wrong in the first place? Let’s start with the “reinvention” of a downtown that closed streets and internalized them, emptying the downtown streets of any potential for vitality by stripping them of the opportunities for casual pedestrian interactions. And now, although the arena site is close to major transportation systems, the plan is to build more car parking to bring crowds in from the suburbs. The arena will need to compete for “rock concerts and ice-skating extravaganzas” to be financially viable, but Jacobs quotes an enthusiastic history professor at Rutgers (edited here just a bit): “this project is another acknowledgment that cities like Newark can become beacons of …. in this case, sports”.
The case for locating large event venues like arenas in urban areas can be briefly stated. The transportation infrastructure for moving large numbers of people is designed for the peak loads. In business areas, peak loads are only in the morning and evening rush hours, and it does make sense to leverage an investment in transportation systems by using it more fully in off-peak hours. An event venue requires the movement of huge numbers of people, and if the infrastructure with adequate capacity is not in place, it would need to be built. In non-urban areas, this required new construction consists of new systems of roadways and vehicle storage areas. Less new construction is required by a project located near existing infrastructure, because the project can - in essence - piggy-back on the existing transportation systems.
However, event venues have unique characteristics and demands on transportation systems and existing infrastructure. The surge of fans arriving and (especially) leaving an event will cause any system to exceed its maximum capacity, causing what transportation planners call a “crush load”. These are inherently uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situations if not properly managed, and are not at all compatible with a normal street life. This is why we don’t see normal streets around event venues. It is not an accident that city planners require event venues to be built at some distance from residential areas, it is a necessity.
Why does the Atlantic Yards project need an arena? Would the project financing be more difficult without an arena? Actually no, most believe that the arena will not make money, it requires huge subsidies. Would there be less site area available to provide open space or build housing without an arena? No, there would be more space available; we could build more housing and provide more open space. Would traffic be worse without an arena? No, it would be better. What about the impact on the environment? Better. Opportunities for a vibrant mixed-use community? Much better.
There are those who might be nostalgic about the loss of the Dodgers, and think that Brooklyn has some inalienable right or obligation to host major league sports. If you don’t remember the Dodgers maybe you’re not really a true Brooklynite, and you shouldn’t have a voice in this debate. But most of us, especially those of us who are native New Yorkers, know that what makes us great is not our teams, but our ability to attract talented people, and our acceptance and integration of others. So maybe the new Devils arena is great for Newark, and will make it a great beacon for…sports. But crush loads driving in from the suburbs for sports, or rock concerts, or ice-skating extravaganzas drive out opportunities for a vibrant community, and are not compatible with a vision of a dynamic mixed-use street life in Brownstone Brooklyn. This is not an anti-development sentiment; it is pro-development, pro integrated planned growth that builds on the strengths of the existing urban fabric.